Breaking Down Story Units for Novels

Hello, all!

I’m trying to revise a novel, and trying to figure out how to break down the story into Sequences, Scenes, and Events. I know that most everyone here uses the PSR, but I’m not quite at that level yet. However, since I use a four-act structure, I’m finding it difficult to organize scenes and events.

If there are four events for each scene, and 96 events in a story, then how would those scenes be divided into the sequences that represent each signpost?

If I were to use the Z-Pattern, I would only have three events per scene, and would be missing a type for each scene. That would give me two scenes for each sequence, with six events for each sequence. But it would also give me 32 scenes, instead of 24/28.

But if I were to have four events per scene, I would have the 24 Magic Scenes, but how could I divide those into the Signpost Sequences? It’s my understanding that a scene has to be contained within a sequence.

I’m also wondering why everyone seems to ignore the idea of Scenes being on the Element level. I can kind of understand why from a screenwriting point of view. But it seems to me that, for a novel, using the Z-Pattern with the Elements works a lot better. Is it just a matter of novels having more room than screenplays? And if so, are there any resources that anyone can point me to for making this work with novels?

Any help would be greatly appreciated.

I’m writing my first novel using Dramatica and I have scenes representing elements. Like you, I find it easier. I believe this is one of those areas where screenwriting and novel writing diverge. There’s simply much more space in a novel and that brings certain pros and cons. I’m even considering doing the same with static appreciations (for example, I have Memories as my Prerequisites and I’m considering breaking it down to look at Truth, Evidence, Suspicion, and Falsehood and combine them rather than look at Memories directly). With approx. 70,000 words in my novel, I have the space to do that and I believe it will create a stronger lasting impact upon the reader.

I’m really new to Dramatica, so take whatever I say with a gigantic grain of salt. However, I believe the Z-Pattern you are talking about only feels to the reader like three acts. You still write four signposts. It is just that the 3rd signpost is somewhat muted.

Regarding the 24 (or 28) magic scenes, you might find this helpful

1 Like

I am writing my novels as well my short stories with Dramatica. I either use the PSR to break scenes down for my novel or any quad for short stories.

When I started to work with Dramatica I also thougth why not beginning at the Element level. It looked so much easier. From my expierence the Element level is too much detail, especially for the first draft. I got lost on hammering on the elements one by one without really getting a meaning out of it.

The best way for the first draft for me is, try getting a good to go story form and the get this first draft done.

I think you can use elements or any static point as well to elaborate on it for a while, create atmosphere … but when it comes to theme and conflict, from my expierence you might miss the point.

For revisions of a first draft I really do recommend the Plot Sequence Report (PSR). What I love about the PSR is that you get an outside view (what’s going on in the plot) and inside view (how is the scene expierenced from within) for each individual scene. I am always surprised and it looks like magic once I go through a first draft and revise it with the PSR of my reworked Story Form.

For the PSR just do a search in this forum, there are some good post from @mlucas and @jhull.

BTW, with PSR you get 64 scenes, if you consider to do RS scenes as separate ones.

Yeah, I really like the PSR. When I say I’m not there yet, I just mean that I’m not to that point in my revisions. Although, I can see how the PSR could help identity the signposts at some point. But at the same time, 64 scenes is about 3/4 of a book for me, so I’m not really sure if the PSR will be all that helpful at the scene level.

After drawing out the different ways for breaking down the story with Dramatica, I’m beginning to think that my problem lies in trying to smush together two different methods for building the story. On one hand, I’m thinking of the Sequences, Scenes, and Events from the theory book. And on the other, I have a combination of scene creation techniques from Jim Hull and Armando that don’t seem to take the stuff from the theory book into account.

I’m also beginning to wonder if maybe I’m trying to put too many scenes into one storyform.

Fascinating to me, the average length of a book is 64,000 words.

Of course, there are different lengths for different types of books, but still interesting. Even more interesting that my scenes run about 1,000 words.

I think the problem with working on the elemental level for scenes is that they are used to fulfill the needs of the event level.

Also, Dramatica is all about the relationships. Each quad creates six relationships. That’s 96 different relationships to explore at the scenic level.

I also, sometimes, wonder if the software had the screenwriter in mind but was picked up by the noveling community. What you need is there, but it isn’t expressed by the report output.

From a non-Dramatica viewpoint: there are scenes and sequels. Whether you want sequels to be a paragraph or pages of character internalization is up to you. But, I don’t think that sequels necessarily fall within the essense that is presented by Dramatica.

I wonder what you mean by:

[quote=“adanawtn, post:4, topic:1718”]
But at the same time, 64 scenes is about 3/4 of a book for me… [/quote]

Do you mean that your word count falls short of the recommended word count for a novel in your genre? Do you mean that you arrive at a certain marker of the story (2nd Turning Point) and you have nothing left in the gas tank? What do you mean exactly?

I did start thinking about the six relationships and using those for my scenes. But then it makes me wonder about PRCO/SRCA/TKAD/PASS.

And I write high fantasy novels, which puts my recommended word count between 90,000 and 120,000. My scenes generally between 1,000 and 1,500 words. But now that I think about it, Dramatica ‘Scenes’ and what I’m used to thinking about as scenes aren’t actually quite the same thing. Or at least, I think that might be the case.

But I’m not quite sure at this point because, do Events within the scenes have their own quad? For instance, if I have a Situation Event, does that also need to hit Past, Progress, Future, and Present within that Event? If that is the case, then my “Scenes” are actually Events, which would work.

It could also be that I’m used to there being roughly 90 scenes in a book. But what I’m not taking into account is that those 90 scenes aren’t necessarily Dramatica Scenes. So maybe I just need to reconceptualize my idea of what actually counts as a full Scene in Dramatica terms.

I started to write about how the definition of scene differs in Dramatica, but I ended up deleting the post.

I do believe, depending on how it is written, an event could mirror what many folks consider a scene.

I don’t believe that is always the case, as a scene could exist without summarization or transition. In other words, a scene with four events could exist in real time all the way through without change of location.

In some of the stories in the workshop section, it’s pretty clear that events mimic what could be defined as scenes in other theories. In some of the stories, each event corresponds to a component of PRCO/TKAD. And folks used the elements to define these events.

I have a theory, because an event is the micro level of the story, that it uses the dominant POV (subjective) PRCO. How to select the elements for this subjective level PRCO – this I don’t know. However, I enjoy the idea that no quad would be used more than once in an ACT.

4 Acts per Story = 4 total
4 Sequences per Act = 16 total
4 Scenes per Sequence = 64 total
4 Events per Scene = 256 total

I guess what’s really bugging me is that I don’t see how the 24/28 Magic Scenes fit into the 64 Scenes that would be created using the PSR method that everyone is so fond of.

If I were to use the 24 Magic Scenes, I would get my 96 Events, which would translate to “scenes” in the story. But then, where does that leave the 64 Scenes from the PSR? Or would it be that, instead of using the quad method, I would need to use the Six Pairs method, which would then give me 96 Scenes and 384 Events?

Plus, the PSR only talks about the Variation level. Which makes me wonder if I can just use the Elements beneath each Variation in the PSR to get my Scenes. But then that still leaves me with over 1,000 Events.

It just seems like I’m missing something.

I’ve read posts by a number of folks that have the exact question that you have. And I never walked away from any of those reads feeling satisfied with the answers given. I’m not sure anyone has a great answer.

The general answer is… forget it and write. Or, don’t worry about the math.

I say, use the math if it is useful. If it confuses you… make up a process with a bunch of magical handwaving and a pair of lucky underwear that you always wear when you write.

You may find that crusty underwear and the belief in magic carry you a long way.

I can say that there are a number of references all around such as this:

As for your next question, here is why in some areas we speak of “28 magic scenes” and in other areas “24 scenes.” In short, the 28 scenes are a storytelling technique while the 24 scenes are a structural component.

Unfortunately, my eyes start to glaze over after reading some of these articles. That’s not to disparage the author. Rather, it is acknowledging the complexity of the question.

Here is my simple, personal solution to this question. There are four POVs at work. Sometimes a scene performs double, triple, quadruple duty in this regard. Sometimes it doesn’t.

So the number could be more or less than 64 depending on the overlap. 64 more describes the average, I imagine. For me, 64 is comfortable. That’s why I stick with it. It gives me a general target.

1 Like

The answer is yes. Because the model loops in on itself, when you move into greater detail you’ll find the model repeated ad infinitum.

It was once explained to me as a train car on a track - that is, our minds can only hold four levels in context at once and be able to ascribe some greater meaning to everything.

The train “track” is the constantly repeated fractal nature of:

Domain - Concern - Issue - Element - Domain - Concern - Issue - Element -> and so on

You can’t go into greater detail of each Element without losing sight of the top, and vice versa. You can move the “track” of the story up and down, but just know that the further detail you go into the easier it is to lose track of the bigger pieces.

That’s why the model holds those four as what is needed to gather meaning.

Forget about the 24/28 Magic scenes. They mix both subjective and objective views of the storyform and therefore are no bueno. That’s why you can’t resolve it all.

Signposts and Journeys don’t mix - you’re either looking at Signposts OR you’re looking at Journeys.

The typical “28” major beats found in a story are a combination of:

  • Four signposts from every Throughline
  • Overall Story Sequences from the Overall Story Throughline
  • 4 or 5 Story Driver beats

That gets you the usual 28-32 from a STRUCTURAL perspective – without having to resort to a Journey appreciation of the narrative.

I would leave that for the Audience.


Thank you for clearing up the loop effect and what’s going on with the Magic Scenes. That makes me feel a lot better.

However, this is new…

I get the four signposts for each throughline, and the 4 or 5 Story Drivers. But that gives me 20-21 beats. Where are the remaining seven beats coming from? Is this where the Six Variation pairs come in for the Thematic Sequences in the theory book?

I think I understand this but just to make sure: what you’re suggesting here is that for structuring purposes, the 28 consists of four “structural acts” that each consists of 1 Driver scene + 3 Signpost scenes (MC, IC, and RS) + 2-3 OS Signpost scenes (using the PSR Z-pattern). Is that right?

So if you were aiming for something longer without adding an additional storyform, you could use all four variations for all four throughlines for all four acts (4x4x4 = 64). Is that correct?

When it comes to structuring your story, I would first start with the four signposts from each Throughline, and then the Story Drivers. So you might have:

OS: Past - Progress - Future - Present
MC: Doing - Learning - Obtaining - Understanding
IC: Conceptualizing - Being - Becoming - Conceiving
RS: Subconscious - Preconscious - Conscious - Memory

With Five Story Drivers, weaved together it might look something like this:

  1. Initial Story Driver
  2. Past
  3. Doing
  4. Conceptualizing
  5. Subconscious
  6. Second Story Driver
  7. Learning
  8. Progress
  9. Being
  10. Preconscious
  11. Third Story Driver (Midpoint)
  12. Future
  13. Conscious
  14. Becoming
  15. Obtaining
  16. Fourth Story Driver
  17. Memory
  18. Understanding
  19. Conceiving
  20. Present
  21. Concluding Story Driver

Right there you have an awesome story. But it might be a tad anemic when it comes to fleshing out a two-hour screenplay (and even moreso if you’re writing a novel). So you’ll want to break down those individual Signposts into the Sequences that lie underneath.

For screenplays, and most stories, I suggest only doing the Overall Story Sequences. These are the sequences found in the Plot Sequence Report. The other Throughlines I only look at if I need to “cheat” and I can’t come up with something on the spot that feels right. If you’re nearing a deadline, the Sequences become your best friend. :slight_smile:

So, if we take the PSR for the Overall Story Sequences we get:

  • Past: Approach, Self Interest->Morality, and Attitude
  • Progress: Prerequisites, Strategy->Analysis, and Preconditions
  • Future: Senses, Conditioning->Instinct, and Interpretation
  • Present: Wisdom, Skill->Experience, and Enlightenment

What you do is you REPLACE the instances of the Overall Story Signposts with these Sequences. In the first Structural Act you will now have THREE beats of Past: Past in terms of Approach, Past in terms of Self-interest to Morality, and Past in terms of Attitude.

Your structure might now look something like this:

  1. Initial Story Driver
  2. Past in terms of Approach
  3. Doing
  4. Past in terms of Self-interest to Morality
  5. Conceptualizing
  6. Subconscious
  7. Past in terms of Attitude
  8. Second Story Driver
  9. Learning
  10. Progress in terms of Prerequisites
  11. Being
  12. Progress in terms of Strategy to Analysis
  13. Preconscious
  14. Progress in terms of Preconditions
  15. Third Story Driver (Midpoint)
  16. Future in terms of Senses
  17. Conscious
  18. Future in terms of Conditioning to Instinct
  19. Becoming
  20. Future in terms of Interpretation
  21. Obtaining
  22. Fourth Story Driver
  23. Present in terms of Wisdom
  24. Memory
  25. Present in terms of Skill to Experience
  26. Understanding
  27. Conceiving
  28. Present in terms of Enlightenment
  29. Concluding Story Driver

From there you might add an extra beat or two from the Main Character Throughline or the Relationship Story Throughline - whatever feels right for your story.

I’ve also found that as you get closer and closer to the end - these beats tend to weave tighter and tighter with each other, especially in comparison to where they began in the first Signpost.

With this approach you end up with 28-32 STRUCTURAL story beats from which you can start to write a treatment/master outline or even the story itself. You’ve kept the perspective of Author consistent throughout the structuring process.

Plus, it’s a ton of fun.


:astonished: This is AMAZING!!

Thank you so much for this!

1 Like

WHOA! :boom:

Now just imagine what it’s like to have Jim actually working on your story with you…


Gotta throw the love back atcha, great GREAT note.


I’m editing my novel’s outline given the information you just shared with us, but I’m confused on a point. The idea of replacing signposts with four variations was something I had already intuited, but the only place I’ve seen Dramatica use the term “story driver” is action vs. decision.
What do you mean by five story drivers?

1 Like

I had the same question when learning Dramatica. See the footnote here:

1 Like

Thanks and now that question leads to another question.

What function does the fifth story driver serve given that the story is over?

1 Like